What Is a Felony DUI in Florida?

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All states make drunk and drugged driving illegal. In Florida, the offense is called driving under the influence, or DUI. This offense is generally a misdemeanor, the less serious type of crime. However, a Florida DUI can be a felony – the most serious type of crime – in some circumstances. Anyone driving in Florida needs to understand the Florida DUI laws, including the difference between a misdemeanor DUI and a felony DUI.

What Is a Florida DUI?

Driving under the influence is illegal in Florida. This happens when someone drives with alcohol or drugs in their system to such an extent that their ability to operate a vehicle is significantly impaired. As far as alcohol goes, a person with a blood alcohol level (BAL) of 0.08 percent or higher is presumed to be intoxicated. A driver with a BAL of under 0.08 percent can be arrested and prosecuted for a Florida DUI if the state has other evidence of intoxication, like testimony of erratic driving.

In Florida, a driver is deemed to have consented to taking a chemical test to determine their BAL. This comes into play if a person is arrested for probable cause of a DUI offense. Any driver arrested for a DUI who refuses to take a chemical test is subject to sanction by administrative license suspension and/or criminal penalties, depending on their prior driving record. The fact of the denial to take a test can also be used at the DUI trial as evidence.

What Is a Misdemeanor DUI?

Florida, like most states, divides criminal charges into misdemeanors and felonies. A misdemeanor is any crime punishable by no more than a year in jail. Felonies are more serious crimes that carry a potential imprisonment penalty of more than a year. A felony record also carries much more stigma than a misdemeanor record, including loss of the right to own firearms and the ability to work in certain professions.

In Florida, a basic DUI is a misdemeanor. Under Florida Motor Vehicles Law Section 316.193, the potential penalties for a first and second offense include:

  • A fine of between $500 and $1,000 for a first offense; $1,000 and $2,000 for a second offense.
  • Imprisonment for up to six months for a first offense; up to nine months for a second offense.
  • Mandatory placement of an ignition interlock device on vehicles for at least a year for a second conviction.
  • DUI school.
  • Mandatory license suspension.

A third offense that occurs 10 years or more after the second offense is also a misdemeanor. The fine for that offense is between $2,000 and $5,000. Potential imprisonment is up to a year.

What Is a DUI Enhancement?

When people talk about a DUI enhancement, they mean aggravating circumstances that increase the potential penalties. For example, if a driver stopped for a DUI takes a chemical test that shows a BAL of above 0.15 percent, it "enhances" the misdemeanor charge in Florida. That enhancement increases the maximum jail sentence to nine months.

If the DUI driver causes an accident resulting in property damage, it is a further enhancement. This is called a first-degree misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of up to a year in jail The same is true if the DUI driver was carrying a passenger who was a minor under the age of 18.

When Is a Third DUI a Felony?

A DUI in Florida can be charged as a felony in certain circumstances. One situation when Florida will charge a driver with a felony DUI has to do with the timing of the offense.

If a driver arrested for a DUI has been convicted of two prior DUIs within the past 10 years, the third DUI can be charged as a third-degree felony. This is often described as a third offense inside of 10 years, but the DUI can be charged as a felony if either of the two priors happened within 10 years of the latest arrest. The other offense can be between 11 and 20 years before. A fourth, or subsequent DUI offense, will be automatically charged as a third-degree felony no matter when the offenses occurred in relation to each other.

A third-degree felony DUI can be punished by a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment of up to five years. The sentence must include at least a month in prison. For a fourth offense, the court may permanently revoke the person's driver's license.

What About DUIs Causing Injury?

If a driver drove under the influence of alcohol or drugs and, as a result, caused serious bodily harm to someone, they can be charged with a felony DUI. The person injured can be a passenger in the same vehicle, a driver or passenger in another vehicle, or someone not in a car at all, like a pedestrian or bicyclist.

This type of DUI charge is also a third-degree felony, even if it is a first offense Therefore, it carries the same range of punishments as the third-degree felony for a third DUI within 10 years or a fourth DUI. The penalties include fines up to $5,000 and up to five years in prison. In cases of DUI causing serious injury, the court can order restitution, an amount of money to make the victim whole. This amount might include an award for lost wages and hospital bills. For pain and suffering damages, the victim must bring a civil tort lawsuit against the driver.

What Happens if Someone Dies?

When a person is driving under the influence and, because of their impairment, an individual or an unborn baby dies, the offense is charged as second-degree felony. This is called DUI manslaughter. Note that the death must result from the impaired driving. If another driver loses control, for example, and swerves in front of the under-the-influence driver, the resulting death is not caused by the DUI.

If the death was, in fact, caused by the DUI driver, they can be charged with DUI manslaughter. The penalties for this offense are higher than for a felony of the third degree. DUI manslaughter can be punished by a prison sentence up to 15 years and a fine up to $10,000. The DUI driver can also be ordered to pay restitution, attend DUI school and lose driving privileges.

If the DUI driver who causes personal injury leaves the scene of the accident, the charge is even more severe. The offense is DUI Manslaughter Leaving the Scene and can be charged as a first-degree felony. This carries a potential penalty of up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.